Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Idolatry of Safety

I hear repeated promises from the President that he is going to keep us "safe."  These promises are usually preceded by a description of just how fearful the world is.  Muslims want to kill us. Immigrants are pouring in over the borders.  Inner cities are disasters of slums and violence.

The most common objection I see to admitting refugees to the U.S. is, how can we be sure they are not terrorists?  Are we safe?  Despite numerous factual descriptions of the exhaustive vetting processes that refugees go through, the President still prefers the lie, going even so far as to say recently that refugees are "not screened" before they are admitted to the U.S.  Nothing could be further from the truth, but my point will not be to describe the vetting process.  That is already well documented in other sources (for those with eyes to see and ears to hear).

Rather we should ask, why is guaranteed safety the pre-requisite for admitting refugees?  Is there any act of compassion that doesn't involve some degree of risk to the one showing compassion?  Could the "Good Samaritan" be sure that the injured man in the road wasn't really some kind of trap to rob or kill him?  Or that the man he helped wouldn't take all his money the first chance he had?

If we have to be 100% guaranteed that no refugee will ever turn terrorist before we admit any in, then we have elevated our safety to our highest moral goal.  It becomes our object of worship.  Certainly we can never give such a guarantee any more than we can guarantee that none of the 4 million children born in the U.S. each year will grow up to be a serial killer.  And the odds of being killed by one of those native born is substantially higher than the odds of being killed by a refugee or any other immigrant.  If assurance of safety were our only goal, perhaps a policy of mass infanticide would be in order -- like Herod's plan to eliminate the perceived threat of the newborn Christ.  But, of course, we must abandon such an immodest proposal.

Showing compassion and humanity to refugees is not only part of our international obligations as a country, but it is also part of the moral and just obligations of any country, especially any country with the resources with which we have been blessed.

Sometimes doing the right thing has a cost.  That's not to say we shouldn't do our best to review and vet immigrants and refugees, but to hold off on humanitarian aid purely because of some amped up and unfounded fear is wrong.

I suggest that the burden of proof is not on me or my government to prove that all refugees are safe.  I think the burden is on the anti-refugees to prove that our guaranteed safety is a higher good than our duty to act justly.

In the movie, "Open Range," Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall as two cattlemen, are trying to enlist the aid of some of the town's people in resisting an evil rancher baron and his henchman.  One farmer has two young sons and tells Kevin Costner,

"I didn't raise my boys just to see 'em killed."

To which Kevin Costner replies:

"Well, you may not know this, but there's things that gnaw at a man worse than dyin'."

I'm praying that our treatment of refugees and immigrants in the coming administration will gnaw at us enough to outweigh irrational fears for our own safety.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

I cringe when I see Melania Trump reading the Lord's Prayer at her husband's recent rally in Melbourne, FL.  Not because she seems utterly unfamiliar with it, and not because I have anything against the Lord's Prayer, or Melania for that matter.  But because this administration's policies are utterly at odds with the content of the prayer.  The crowd cheers wildly because, I suppose, they think someone is standing up for Christianity by reading the prayer.  This is the worst kind of civil religion.  It is, as Paul says to Timothy, "having a form of godliness, but denying its power."  2 Tim. 3:5

How cynical for this administration to issue just this weekend the most draconian enforcement priorities I've ever seen against immigrants (affecting children, asylum seekers, parents, children, and spouses of U.S. citizens, spouses of soldiers, etc.), and then read:

"Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

Forgiveness is a Christian virtue, but apparently forgotten when it comes to immigrants -- whom we are expressly told by the Scriptures to treat humanely and compassionately.  Although the use of the word "trespass" in the Lord's Prayer reflects an old English definition of offense, it certainly describes the plight of most immigrants here without legal authorization.  They are "trespassers" desperately looking for a legal solution to their presence here.  And in most cases, contributing much more to our society than they ever take.

No one disputes that criminal aliens should be punished and likely banned from the U.S. (depending on the nature and severity of the crime and other mitigating factors, like family, etc. -- something for judges to parse out).  But this administration treats every immigrant who never had legal status, or had it and lost it, as criminals deserving of the harshest punishment, regardless of family, character, or contributions to the U.S.  The private prison industry will rejoice at their profits.  The poor will cry for relief from their oppressors, like the children of Israel in the land of Egypt.

Note to administration: Please don't read the Lord's Prayer and ignore its content, and then think you are somehow standing up for Christianity.  You are not.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Delegitimizing President

In one of his latest tweets, the President commented on an adverse ruling by a federal judge on the President's traveling ban, calling to the judge as this “so-called judge.”  Judge James Robart of Washington is not a “so called” judge.  He is a federal judge appointed by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate under the procedures laid out by the U.S. Constitution.  He is “so-called” a judge by the legitimate authorities within our country.  To challenge that by implying otherwise is an attack on the democracy.

The President has a nasty habit of doing this – delegitimizing any persons or structures around him that would threaten his supremacy.  Remember during the campaign, when reminded that his opponent at that time, Ben Carson, was a “great doctor,” he responded that he was “perhaps an O.K. doctor.” John McCain “wasn’t a war hero.”  Jeb Bush was “low energy.”  Hillary Clinton was “crooked Hillary.”  Ted Cruz was “lyin’ Ted.” Marco Rubio was “little Marco.”  And don’t forget that his career was born on the multi-year false attack on the legitimacy of President Obama’s birthplace and the documents of his achievements.

All of this had the intention and effect of delegitimizing his enemies as persons because they were possible threats to the reality star turned politician’s ambitions.  In fact, his response to virtually any attack was not to defend or rebut the attack, but to delegitimize the attacker.

More seriously, he also turned his attacks on the media and the judiciary.  The press is constantly referred to as “dishonest,” and “lying,” and “corrupt.”  At one campaign rally, he joked that they should be killed, but he probably wouldn’t do it (although he was thinking about it).  He singled out reporters for criticism, to the point that one reporter had to be escorted out by Secret Service while the crowd jeered and threatened her.  And we all remember how he mocked a disabled reporter because he wouldn’t confirm Trump’s lie about celebrations among Muslims after 911.

When a fraud case concerning his “university” was before a federal judge, the President dismissed the judge (who was U.S. born) as a “Mexican” who couldn’t rule fairly on his case.  Trump later quietly paid $25 million to settle the case.

These attacks could be dismissed as the product of a thin-skinned, ego driven, narcissist.  And they are certainly that too.  But the more nefarious aspect is how the institutions that hold together democracy are weakened and made to appear less trustworthy.

Democracy doesn’t survive without a free press and independent judiciary.   If we don’t trust our institutions, then we will trust some strongman who promises us that “he alone” can save us.  That’s the end of a democratic society.